There is a current nonsensical mantra in the queer and questioning community that chants some variation of “Don’t label me.” Like its equally imbecilic sibling “Don’t discriminate,” it has obvious good intentions with its attempt at breaking down assumptions:
Sexuality is fluid, so don’t make assumptions about my orientation; gender and gender expression are fluid, so don’t make binary assumptions about my gender; my identity is my own, so don’t make assumptions that you know me.
All certainly laudable goals; however, the “don’t” command is misinformed about human nature, misguided in its efforts to improve society, and ultimately self-defeating.
The catalyst for this particular post is the character Jude (nicely played by Hayden Byerly) in the TV series The Fosters. There are many wonderfully ambiguous yet queer positive scenes with Jude expressing his individuality (nail polish) and drawing homophobia out with specifics (what if I was gay?). However, I saw a scene the other night where Jude gave his friend Connor the don’t label me speech that is so common nowadays and walk away like he has made some major higher-ground point.
Such rhetoric misses an important fact about labeling — that we cannot help but label – and takes the conversation into an absurd territory: one of trying to not label rather than one of trying to develop the skill of using labels more wisely and realizing when we are not doing so.
Considering our evolution in simplified fashion helps illustrate this.
A one cell-organism “labels” (in quotes because no neurons yet to actually “think” this) its immediate environment as “hospitable” or “hostile”. Based on this label, it either stays put if the former, or, if the latter, tries to move to a different environment to the extent that its rudimentary locomotive ability allows.
Add some cells to give more specific sensory input. Such inputs have value because of the labels they encourage: In a hostile environment, the original “hospitable” label as being “a point away from here” becomes modified to distinguishing “Over there A” from “Over there B” with one or the other being assigned a label of “better”; i.e. more hospitable.
Onward we move up the life scale. Some of our first labels were sweeping, diametrically opposed ones: Edible, not edible. Will try to eat me, won’t try to eat me. Something I want to screw. Something that wants to screw me.
Over time, neural networks became more sophisticated, allowing labels like good worker, dependable, or that boy over there is hot. It also allows us to see how others might label us and act accordingly: if I do x, my boss will label me as a good worker; If I do y my neighbor will label me as dependable; or if I do z, that boy over there will label me as hot.
We are labeling machines by construction with discerning eyes and discriminating tastes. Our ability to simultaneously make fine distinctions and grand generalizations is one-half the trademark of our intelligence, allowing us to thrive.
The other half, which likely came much later, is the ability to continually revise both. Revision is key to everything. For revision is what allows us to recognize our labels for the expedient means they are and not mistake them for some sort of permanent truth.
Mistaking a label for truth is at the heart of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and any other type of labeling gone awry. It is not the labeling itself, but the inability – whether deliberate or otherwise — to revise such labels in a productive way that is problematic.
Connor, being human, will continue to label Jude in multiple ways, well beyond gay or not gay to encompass labels like “doesn’t want to discuss his sexuality” or “is touchy about his sexuality” or “someone who gets mad at me for trying to understand him” (just like Jude, also being human, will likewise label Connor as “homophobic” or “someone with a father who is homophobic” or “someone who is invading my personal space.”)
When conversations end like the one Jude had with Connor, the labeling doesn’t stop; it can’t in fact stop, which is the main point of this post. But the fruitful potential for revision does indeed get truncated.
What if instead, the conversation played out something like this:
Jude: Don’t label me.
Connor: Okay, okay. Sorry. I wasn’t trying to… it’s just… how do you feel about me?
The conversation – and subsequent label revisions – could go a hundred different ways from this new point of departure. The best path for revision is reversing label direction, going from the original generalization to the specific.
For you can’t tell me that Jude’s adversity here to being labeled by Connor means that he does not have internal labels of his own, such as one classifying Connor as a boy he likes in that certain way or doesn’t like in that certain way.
It is no longer the generalized label of “gay” or “not gay” but instead the specific label of “that particular boy” or “not that particular boy.” Out of such specifics new labels get built or old ones revised. That is why exposure to diversity and conversations about diversity and learning about diverse people transform our thinking — our label making — in positive ways.
“Don’t label me” is as useless as it is moronic. Far better, far more useful, is “Be cautious with your labels as you might mistake them for truth and lose your ability to revise them.” But that is not as sound-bitey as the former.
So maybe we should phrase it another, more inviting way:
“Hi, there. I’m JD. Tell me about yourself.”